A good note from Alcuin Reid on the SSPX development

Several alert readers have sent me the following which I finally tracked down to our friends at NLM.  Go check them out and spike their stats.

The piece says it is from The Catholic Herald, the best Catholic paper in the UK right now, but it must not be published yet. 

This letter is by Alcuin Reid, an editor of solid liturgical resources and author.

Here it is with my emphases and comments.

Let’s thank God for the return of the prodigal sons

Those who wish to cast out the SSPX are like the elder son in Jesus’s parable, says Alcuin Reid

30 January 2009

"I am delighted that you are back. I do not agree with everything you did, but today my heart is filled with joy. You’re back; that is all that now matters." Might not these not have been the sentiments of the father for his prodigal son in the Gospel of St Luke? Might they not also be the sentiments of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, in lifting the excommunications from the bishops of the Society of St Pius X?

This act is nothing if not an act of paternal love and mercy designed to bring back into the fullness of the family of the Church those who had – at least in one sense – strayed from it. It may also be said to be a true fruit of the bouquet of prayers offered in recent months for this precise intention by members of the SSPX, as well as of the ongoing prayer for Christian unity that is such a feature of the modern Catholic Church.

This is the second major step towards the full canonical integration of the SSPX (the first being the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum). But it is not the last. The four bishops are now "in communion", but as yet they have no canonical mission and they and their clergy still labour under the irregularities that follow from the positions taken since the Seventies, including suspension[Right.  So they are on their way back.  In the parable, perhaps they would be at the point where the watchful father has spied them from afar and runs to meet them, but not quite to the point when the father puts rings on their fingers.]

To wave this suspension in the face of returning brethren is hardly in the spirit of the reconciliation that Pope Benedict clearly desires, but it exists and it does need to be addressed, and quickly. This is a delicate period. There is much more to do in preparing for the peaceful integration of the SSPX and that will take time, just as it is taking time to give an appropriate canonical status to the former "Transalpine Redemptorists" in Scotland, reconciled last June.  [To remind people of the suspension is not to "wave" it, in the sense of "waving under a nose".  Many people have misunderstood the lifting of the excommunications as something more than it is: a major step.  And Reid is right that this is a "delicate period".  Not merely are the points of contact thin, not exactly edge-of-knife thin, but at least not wide, there is a time issue involved as well.  It is hard to image a Pontiff better informed and better disposed than Pope Benedict.  also, there is a whole generation of followers of the SSPX who have grown up never having known unity with Rome.  Tick tick tick.]

During the somewhat untidy months ahead, charity and patience are called for – from all perspectives. We ought to note, though, that Rome has been clear for some time that Catholics may attend SSPX Masses out of devotion to the Church’s Latin liturgical tradition, and that they do not thereby commit sin or incur any canonical penalty, so long as they do not do so out of "a schismatic mentality which separates itself from the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff and the entire Catholic Church". Given Pope Benedict’s acceptance of the SSPX’s declaration of its determination to remain Catholic and its acceptance of the Church’s teachings, including the Primacy of the Pope, with filial disposition, it is hard to see how any barrier in simply attending Mass now remains[Well… other than the fact that they are not yet in unity with Rome?  I can sure understand this approach, however.  Especially in those many places, in England in particular, where there are so few places a person can easily find celebrations of Holy Mass in the older form, even in inconvenient times and places!]

The issue the validity of the Sacraments of Penance and Matrimony celebrated by SSPX priests (who because of their suspension are unable validly to marry couples or absolve penitents except in danger of death) remains, but we may hope and pray that this is addressed equitably and swiftly.  [Amen and amen.]

Of course, there are other issues involved. That is why Bishop Fellay, while expressing profound "filial gratitude" for Pope Benedict’s "unilateral, benevolent" act has also called it "courageous". The key issue is Vatican II – or certain aspects of it. Archbishop Lefebvre, a Father of Vatican II, signed its Constitutions and Decrees. He lobbied against some of the stances finally adopted, but he nevertheless signed up to them. Later he reacted against their interpretation with what Pope Benedict calls "a hermeneutic of rupture" that was not in continuity with the Tradition of the Church. And the SSPX has continued this reaction – at times intemperately, without making the necessary distinctions between the Council’s pastoral policies and its articulation of Catholic doctrine[I hope the discussions can focus on this, rather than the far more difficult issue of whether a overly man-centered (in opposition to God-centered) starting-point made the documents entirely unacceptable.]

Now Bishop Fellay speaks of "reservations" about Vatican II. Reservations are not denials of doctrine, and anyone may have reservations about even an Ecumenical Council’s pastoral policies and be a Catholic in good standing.  [I believe this is precisely what I have been writing continuously over the last few days. People of good will should be free to disagree on very difficult questions arising from documents which are not crystal clear and still remain in unity.]

It is certainly courageous [but not uncharacteristic for Joseph Ratzinger] for the Holy Father to allow bishops who have strong reservations about an event that has so profoundly dominated Catholic life in the past few decades to return to communion with the Church. In doing so he has added to the dialogue about Vatican II – which the Holy Father has himself fuelled – some substantial participants from a very specific perspective. They, too, may be able to contribute to the reading of the Council with that "hermeneutic of continuity" for which Pope Benedict has so famously called[Right!  IF both sides can approach the table in humility.]

And then there is Bishop Williamson: it is courageous indeed to welcome back such a prodigal. He is not the first Catholic bishop to espouse untenable positions and he probably won’t be the last. It may help us to retain perspective if we realise that priests and bishops committed to the ordinary use of general absolution, the ordination of women, baptisms using invalid formulae, etc, may – without in any way excusing the extremes of either – seem as beyond the pale to the SSPX as do anti-Semitic holocaust deniers or multi-faceted conspiracy theorists (practically all of the SSPX would reject both)[Well said!  And in how many places are these abuses tollerated and traditionally minded priests are persecuted?  I can think of a couple.]

It is telling to see Bishop Fellay distancing himself from such positions. Every Catholic bishop is subject to the Church’s discipline, and if Bishop Williamson behaves inappropriately the Holy See may have to act. But the Pope has demonstrated that paternal love and mercy are to be offered even – perhaps especially – to him.

In spite of the difficulties, there is every reason for hope that the SSPX, for their part, truly want and will work for unity. Bishop Fellay has stated that he is "confident" and that he thinks "we will reach a true solution". Their superior in England, Fr Paul Morgan, said when explaining the Holy Father’s act to his faithful last Sunday that the situation is now better than they could ever have expected. This is a tremendous shift[I am reminded of Msgr. Perl’s analogy "change of atmosphere" and "climate change".  The former can signal the latter.  I think that is what is going on.]

What has been said hitherto has, at times, been – to put it mildly – somewhat less open. These people are Catholics. They love Christ and His Church and wish to serve her mission. There are also number of small, devout, monasteries and other religious communities who, while not belonging to the SSPX, rely on their bishops for Holy Orders, etc, and who are simply trying to live the Catholic faith as it had been lived for centuries. For the SSPX and these associated communities once again to be in full, unimpeded communion with and under the Bishop of Rome cannot but be for their good and for the good of the Church and of the world.

There were two sons in the parable in St Luke’s Gospel. The older one, who had always remained faithful, felt utterly indignant at the celebration of the return of his profligate brother and stood aloof in disapproval. He was rightly rebuked. Let’s not make the same mistake.


Well conceived and well expressed.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Mitch says:

    Very well written and expresses so many points of concern and question that people have. But I am somewhat confused by something written about it being so difficult to locate a TLM in England, inferring more so than other places. Wasn’t it England that received the “Agatha Christie Indult” to retain the TLM? I would have thought if anything they would be more prevalent there. Even with such indult did the majority of Priests abandon ship as far as the Tridentine liturgy was concerned?

  2. I seem to recall the Prodigal Son analogy being made in these comboxes…

  3. Ottaviani says:

    Wasn’t it England that received the “Agatha Christie Indult” to retain the TLM? I would have thought if anything they would be more prevalent there.

    Even though there was an indult from Paul VI, doesn’t mean that the bishops of England and Wales applied it generously. Also, the indult only allowed the use of the 1965 Missal with some 1967 changes, when members of the Latin Mass Society specifically lobbied for the 1962 Missal. I was told by someone old enough to live through the changes that in those days, Westminster Cathedral authorities were so petty, that they allegedly always had an MC spying on any masses that took place, so as to make sure they were forced to adhere to the 1965 rubrics.

    This article is refreshingly better and far more informative than the sanctimonious one written by George Weigel.

  4. schoolman says:

    I think the SSPX will grant—as ABL has already conceeded—that the council texts are “official statements of the Magisterium”.

    Therefore, the work to be done is to ensure a proper interpretation (hermeneutic) “in light of Tradition”.

    There is no question of error in the order of Faith or Morals, per se. We know this on Faith—because the Magisterium, as such, can’t defect in Faith or Morals. On the other hand, good Catholics can agree to disagree on “pastoral policy” insofar as this relates to the practical prudential order rather than Faith and Morals, per se.

  5. Ryan says:

    Fr. Z, how can you say that the SSPX is not in unity with Rome? They are not heretics, they are not excommunicated anymore. Are they schismatics? Msgr. Perl and Cardinal Castrillon say no! Perhaps their priests and bishops are suspended, but does that make them not in unity with Rome? Why are they suspended anymore? What doctrines of the Church do they deny? What disciplines of the Church are they violating right now? What commands have they recently been given that they have not obeyed?

    I thought the reason they were suspended back in the 70’s and early 80’s was because they woulnd’t use the new Mass. Now that is not a problem thanks to Sum. Pont. The excommunications have been lifted. What remains to full unity? The interpretation of Vatican II? There are still great disagreements amongst even Cardinals about that! I get the impression that there are no obsticles remaining except for finding a canonical place in the Church for them.

  6. Ryan: how can you say that the SSPX is not in unity with Rome?

    Ummmm…. because they aren’t?

    They are Catholic and they are faithful to many traditions. But they are not faithful in their obedience to the Roman Pontiff.. yet.

    I hope that the differences which keep them apart will soon be resolved.

  7. schoolman says:

    I think it’s fair to say that they are in “communion” with Rome — but in a state of objective “disobedience” insofar
    as they operate with an irregular status. Hope and pray that this will be soon remedied.

  8. Amadan says:

    If the unexcommunicated Orthodox held what the SSPX does, they’d be Catholic.

    I predict the “reconcilliaton” will happen so fast, it’ll shatter the worldview of the Sheas and Weigels.

  9. Tribunus says:

    Dear Father,

    Thanks very much for your helpful comments.

    Responding to those others, I think it must be said that the legal position is unclear. Many continue to say that SSPX are not in communion with Rome but are unable to give a clear legal basis for saying so. The reality is that they are undoubtedly in communion with Rome. What is less clear is the status of their clergy. Technically, if Archbishop Lefebvre had been truly and legally suspended on 22 July 1976 (and that is by no means clear canonically, either) then anyone ordained by him would be deprived of canonical mission. But if that were so then we could not fulfil our Sunday obligation by attending their masses and yet the EDC, with the Pope’s concurrence, has ruled that we can. So their canonical mission does not, therefore, appear to be completely vitiated.

    We have, therefore, honestly to admit that the legal position is a bit muddled.

    And where there is doubt there is liberty – as Bl John XXIII put it.

    As Alcuin Reid says, let’s just get behind the Pope and his peace plan so that the muddled canonical position can be rectified and the approbrium and odium of the last 20-40 years can be set aside in a spirit of charity.

    I realise that means that some liberal modernists will have had their favourite whipping boy taken away but that is their problem not the Pope’s.

    It has, let’s face it, always been odd that we entertain ecumenism toward every species of religion or belief-system on the planet but refuse to have anything to do with those who wanted simply to carry on praying and believing as Catholics have for most of 2,000 years.

    So let us then follow the Pope and imitate the papal charity.

  10. Jordanes says:

    Tribunus said: Technically, if Archbishop Lefebvre had been truly and legally suspended on 22 July 1976 (and that is by no means clear canonically, either) then anyone ordained by him would be deprived of canonical mission. But if that were so then we could not fulfil our Sunday obligation by attending their masses

    That’s not what the Code of Canon Law says. It says the Sunday obligation is fulfilled by attending a Sunday liturgy in a Catholic rite, without stipulating whether or not the priest celebrant is in good standing or suspended or what:

    “The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.” [Canon 1248.1]

  11. Peter Sudlow says:

    Dom Alcuin Reid’s comment: “The key issue is Vatican II – or certain aspects of it. Archbishop Lefebvre, a Father of Vatican II, signed its Constitutions and Decrees. He lobbied against some of the stances finally adopted, but he nevertheless signed up to them. Later he reacted against their interpretation with what Pope Benedict calls “a hermeneutic of rupture” that was not in continuity with the Tradition of the Church. And the SSPX has continued this reaction…”

    I think one may distinguish between signing to say he was present, signing to vote and officially ratifying the Council decrees. The impresson one gets from Dom Reid is the Mgr Lefebvre (after his interventions) agreed at the time with the documents but rebelled afterwards. This is not factually correct. If you read his book “A Bishop Speaks” a selection of writings and conferences from before, during and then after the Council, you will note he spots the things which are in disagreement with the Church’s teaching (Tradition)straight away and is able to articulate what their consequences will be and how they should be rectified or fought. It is true to say that the Fraternity has continued with his defense of the Faith.

    Most insightful were the recent comments of Cardinal Vingt-Trois about this lifting of the Excommunications when he called the Council ‘a Magisterial text of primary importance’. If by primary, he meant infallible because of the highest degree (primary) in this he does not follow either of the Popes who guided the Council or set its objectives. JXXIII ruled out using a dogmatic/defining approach whilst PVI explicity ruled out using his infallibility.

    Just to show you what 50 years of time will do to people’s memories.

  12. Dan says:

    What concerns me about the “SSPX must return” talk is the real problem is that Rome (and others) have not truly addressed what is the greater issues than all the SSPX “must return to full communion…must accept Vatican II” talk.

    When will the “many priests who have desacralized parishes” (according to Josef Cardinal Ratzinger (His Holiness) ) be made to return to “full communion” with Rome?

    When will the rampant unorthodoxy, which is not found within the SSPX and the chapels they serve, be dealt with in the same “you must return to full communion…you must accept Vatican II” fashion that is required of the SSPX?

    When will the many bishops, priests (and obstinate laymen who often control parishes) who refuse to introduce even a sprinkling of Latin and Gregorian Chant into their parishes be made to accept Vatican II (Ordinary of the Mass to be prayed in Latin…”pride of place” at the Mass for Gregorian Chant, according to Vatican II)?

    The real and grave problem for the Church is not the SSPX. The problem is that the Church has collapsed, many parishes have been “desacralized” (the Pope’s word) and unorthodoxy abounds.

    But it is the SSPX that must be “pacified”…that must enter into “full communion with Rome”…that “must accept Vatican II.”

    It has amazed me for decades that the SSPX were portrayed as the bad guys, as the folks outside the Church, while during that time, bishops, priests and laymen who were “in full communion with Rome” were permitted to desacralize and all but destroyed dioceses, parishes and the Faith in a great many places.

    The SSPX is the least of the Church’s troubles.

  13. Peter Sudlow says:

    Fr John
    “They are Catholic and they are faithful to many traditions. But they are not faithful in their obedience to the Roman Pontiff.. yet.”

    Their position is faithful to Tradtion (i.e. what has to be believed in order to have the Faith). You do them an injustice by representing the issue as ‘traditions’.

    In being obedient to the Faith, as a Catholic one takes no other position than being obedient to the Roman Pontiff. They ‘appear’ disobedient because it is the hierarchy which has changed position on how it expresses the Faith. No authority, however high in the Church, can force one to diminish one’s Faith. But that is the drama of the Coup at Vatican II and hence in clinging to the Faith for dear life, the Fraternity appear to all as rebels.

    Just as a tester for this, I would invite you to read Satis Cognitum by Leo XIII on Unity in the Church. Partial communion, which is much talked about is not to be found in the exposition of unity in the Catholic Church as Leo XIII understood it. This is because unity is first and foremost in the Faith and the Faith is given on the formal motive of God revealing. There is no position metaphysically possible which would admit of partial agreement in the Faith. Partial communion,as presented at Vat II is a novelty. Therein lies part of the problem and part of the solution.

  14. Peter: So.. you are arguing that it is not necessary to be obedient to the Roman Pontiff.

  15. Peter Sudlow says:

    I am not sure I follow your conclusion. The Faith is not an expression of the Roman Pontiff’s own personal will. There have existed many occasions when RPs have given bad example morally. It would not be Catholic to follow their bad example if they commanded us to follow them. There also exists occasions when RPs have taught something in error and been condemned e.g. Honorius I. When Pope Leo II ratified the Third Council of Constantinople he took pains to limit the condemnation of Honorius but nevertheless condemned him as favouring heresy. It was not lawful to follow Honorius in his avoidance of the orthodox phrase ‘two operations’ anymore than it was to agree with his factual adherence to the Monothelytes heresy. Hence it was not lawful to obey him and in fact it was an act of obedience to the Faith and the Church and therefore to the Pope to disobey him by sticking to the orthodox expression of the Faith.

    In this sense then, yes, a Catholic may actually and lawfully disobey the Pope but that does not take away the requirement for obedience to RP by a Catholic. Do you see the distinction?

    This is the position of the Fraternity of St Pius X, following their founder Mgr Lefebvre.

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